The political crisis in Venezuela is at the forefront of many international leaders’ minds – so why are suffering Venezuelans slipping through the cracks?
The politics of Venezuela are intoxicating. Mass corruption, Russian troops, international sanctions, and tweetstorms from John Bolton, Marco Rubio and so many others make for vivid headlines. But amidst the scandal and intrigue, the plight of millions upon millions of Venezuelans forced to flee Nicolas Maduro’s regime has failed to attract the same attention.
David Smolansky, chair of the Organization of American States’ working group on the Venezuelan migration and refugee crisis, joins Altamar to discuss the nation’s humanitarian crisis. Smolansky, a journalist, political scientist, and student organizer, is also the co-founder of Voluntad Popular, one of Venezuela’s main opposition parties.
The dimensions of Venezuela’s refugee crisis are staggering: “As we speak, there are 4.2 million Venezuelan migrants and refugees. This is the largest migration or refugee crisis in the history of Latin America and the second largest in the world, only behind Syria,” says Smolansky.
Nevertheless, only a fraction of the aid dedicated to other crises has been devoted to Venezuelan refugees. International assistance to Syrian refugees amounts to about $3000 per person, while Venezuelan counterparts have received about $100-200.
If the crisis is this large and severe, why has the plight of these refugees failed to garner international attention? “Some see the Venezuelan migrant and refugee crisis as a regional problem, or even worse, as a sub-regional problem,” explains Smolansky. “The key to have more help is to have a global interpretation of this crisis.”
If left unchecked, Smolansky worries things will only get worse. “If the humanitarian crisis continues in Venezuela… we could see more than 5 million Venezuelan migrants and refugees by the end of this year. What’s worse, we could see more than 6 million migrants and refugees by 2020.” At this rate, Venezuela’s refugee crisis will surpass Syria’s within 18 months.
According to Smolansky, “the best solution for this migration and refugee crisis is the fall of the dictatorship in Venezuela.” He explains that, “if this dictatorship ends, it would decrease significantly the number of migrants and refugees and it will create incentives for those millions that are abroad to go back… The sooner Venezuela restores democracy, not only the better for Venezuelans, but also the better for the region.”
But in the meantime, the obstacles faced by Venezuelans remain daunting. “The main challenge is, first, documentation,” Smolansky explains. “More than two million Venezuelan migrants and refugees out of the 4.2 million are irregular or are about to be irregular, so that is a huge challenge.” Venezuelan refugees also face massive physical and mental health risks – at least 25 percent of the Venezuelan migrants and refugees suffer from malnutrition.
Particularly worrying is the near-constant criminal activity at Venezuela’s borders. “There are so many irregular groups that are recruiting Venezuelans, especially under the age of eighteen. Those teenagers are vulnerable to become part of criminal organizations and being part of the criminal economy, specifically the drug trafficking and illegal mining,” says Smolanksy.
As difficult as the process of facilitating political change in Venezuela might be, the challenges faced by the refugee community are even starker. It’s going to take a worldwide effort to assist those who need it the most — but that can’t happen until the Venezuelan refugee crisis receives due attention. Listen to our analysis, available for download here.